In the face of a climate catastrophe, something must be done. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which favours radical action (but also just uses radical action as an excuse to make a stunning thriller), presents a group of (mostly) young adults that are fed up with conventional responses. In a world, this world, where traditional activism has started to feel inactive – futile efforts to chip away at a greater system that profits off of the climate crisis – there is a need to do more. This is event forward filmmaking: characters are initially defined by purpose, the title (adapted from a non-fiction book of the same name into a fictional story inspired by its ideology) makes it clear what is going on and this structure defines the film’s approach to storytelling. Event first; context later. This creates an immediacy befitting of the film’s stakes – it takes this stuff seriously, it (like the characters) is mad as hell and it is not going to take it anymore.
Though the underlying revolutionary politics are what make this special, its most immediate appeal is as a piece of stellar genre filmmaking. There is an economy of plot, matched by sharp editing (think Bresson in terms of immediate action and denotative imagery forever pushing us forward – though, the film also exists as a cousin to Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) (more so than it does The Wages of Fear (1953)). It is certainly a stylish film but doesn’t feel stylised. The incredibly sharp editing captures harsh realities and harsh landscapes, taking on an intentional rhythm and pulling off some stunning flourishes. However, at every point, this style is an extension of action and content – used as a way to add to the narrative, and to the action, as opposed to feeling like mere aesthetic. The work of the Safdie brothers is an easy counterpoint in terms of intensity and, seemingly, style; however, the approach in How to Blow Up a Pipeline feels inherent and never like it is showing off. It is a film about guerrilla action and about carefully planned activism, and the construction of the feature has just enough of a guerrilla feel whilst maintaining a meticulous nature that only propels the story.
The structure is remarkably clever but, like all of the best intricate movies, unfurls effortlessly in front of the viewer. You know they are aiming to Blow Up a Pipeline so that is presumed from the start, as mentioned. The film is concerned with process: the instigating of a plan that was put together in the past. To add texture, though, there are a number of flashback sequences that add character and context. These are expertly deployed, often disrupting tension points to provide release or to add to suspense. The disruptive nature of these sequences adds to the spikey and combative aspects but it also brings so much to the film. The backstories round out character in well written ways – supplemented by brilliant performances across the board – but these individual contexts also add to the overall narrative. Each dive into personal history also covers how the plan was put together. It is like watching a jigsaw come together: you know the eventual picture but seeing how it connects is key. With this storytelling, the film is also sharply aware of genre expectation. The audience will make certain connections inspired by the primarily visual storytelling and these presumptions are cleverly dealt with. The film never misleads the viewer, nor does it feel like it is trying to stay ahead of them, it just maps out the most effective way to tell the story it is telling and manages to comment on genre at the same time.
In manipulating genre it also ticks all the boxes you want. Tropes may be pulled away from but in gesturing towards them there is a large amount of filmic satisfaction. This film may be about desperation but it gives you what you want (from a cinematic perspective). It also has a care for character; building them up in tandem with the narrative makes them integral and is aided by how well written they all are. This truly captures the voice of its relatively young characters, feeling like it is speaking from a generation, and of it, as opposed to down to it. Where characters of this age usually feel woefully unrealistic, an adult’s view of a detached perspective, in most films, here it feels so natural. This also allows the film to be darkly funny and consistently emotional. The emotional stakes are inherent to what is going on but they are also enhanced through character driven drama, but never in a way that manipulates. There are tragic backgrounds; however, each has a symbolic resonance or speaks to something clear about culture and society. A portrait of oppressed identities and of a punished planet is painted through interlinking features and it screams in anger.
This film is a scream. It is completely enthralling and incredibly tense, an utterly kick-ass thriller that has a real rage that burns all the way through it. It is stridently anti-capitalist and searingly prescient, and finds the right ways to have the right conversations. The debates are had on screen, the alternatives are considered. It is a rounded work of political theory transmuted through a narrative context in order to make the case clear. As much as I enjoyed (and the website notably didn’t) Magic Mike’s Last Dance (2023), when watching this I was struck by how this feels like the kind of film Steven Soderbergh should be making. It is efficient, experimental and carries an outsider sensibility while still being fully conversant in the language of accessible and exciting cinema. Films like these are gold dust, the ones that appeal to the converted but have enough about them to reach those not already rooting for the cause. It argues its points so well, taking full advantage of the possibilities of fiction – of the anecdotal or allegorical structure – in order to bring political theory to life. And, in addition to all of this, it is just a very cool film (but never in a way that detracts from its righteousness). The soundtrack is killer, the cinematography is urgent and still evocative and, though it overdoes it at points (in forgivable ways) the editing carries a real ferocity.
Hopefully, the time will come when the central actions of this film feel unnecessary, or like they belong to the past. Hopefully, the film won’t always feel utterly prescient and completely urgent. Right now, it does but even in a better future when it is a period piece – an angry roar that echoed through a different time – the strength of the filmmaking will still linger. That is what will make this timeless; that is what will make this a genre classic. It is all in the construction: one hell of a thriller with spellbinding storytelling and well hewn characters.